Those of us who have experienced the excitement of hooking wild, stream smallmouth on a fly can’t help but fantasize about catching trophy-sized smallmouth. And although a big smallie occasionally smashes a surface fly, most are taken on subsurface flies.
I once got a phone call from my dear friend and lifetime smallmouth purist, Jack Allen. He just returned from his annual August pilgrimage to Maine’s magnificent Penobscot River. We talked before he left because he was puzzled about why he never caught smallmouth there over 18 inches when I have landed 19- to 22-inch fish in the same water. We discovered the reason was that most of my big bass were caught subsurface on my NearNuff Crayfish fly—and Jack only fishes surface bugs. This year I sent Jack a box of NearNuffs to experiment with on the Penobscot. He called excitedly to say they had indeed caught him much larger bass.
As you may know by now, smallmouth bass are my favorite fly-rod fish and I enjoy catching them most on surface flies. But, if I want to catch more and larger fish, I always go to swimming and bottom-crawling flies, especially if they imitate smallmouth favorites such as chubs, shad, shiners, darters, catfish, sculpins, and crayfish. In Part III of this series I’ll discuss these flies and the techniques I use.
I classify my streamers as swimming flies or bottom flies. Swimming flies are streamers I fish from just under the surface to the bottom. Bottom flies are streamers designed to sink fast and crawl or hop over bottom structure at depths from three inches to thirty feet. Fish a fly that swims at the proper depth based on the natural smallmouth food in the water you fish. Both types of flies are effective most of the year when water temperatures range between 45 to 85 degrees F. Below that temperature range, smallmouth are nearly dormant, and above that they can be sluggish or more focused on surface flies.
Subsurface Natural Foods
Smallmouth bass are masters at surprise and pursuit and even the fastest or most erratically swimming foods are no match for their superb agility and speed. Therefore, actively swimming prey such as minnows, leeches, nymphs, frogs, and crayfish are always on the menu.
Minnows such as chubs, smelt, ciscoes, shiners, dace, suckers, sunfish, perch, and shad are smallmouth favorites best imitated with Clouser Minnows, Sheep Minnows, Marabou Muddlers, bucktails, Woolly Buggers, Lefty’s Deceivers, and Matukas. Use patterns with the same color and the same size as the minnows in the waters you’re fishing. In my experience, especially with selective, older, and wiser bass, matching the color, shape, size, and action of the real minnow is important when fishing in clear water and bright daylight. On the other hand, when water visibility is restricted, a streamer with high-contrast colors such as black, white, chartreuse, yellow, and fluorescent orange works better than natural minnow patterns.
These flies are more effective if equipped with vibration generators like rattles, bulky-head muddler-type profiles, Petitjean’s Magic Heads, or revolving spinner blades. Like it or not, a revolving spinner blade in front of a streamer probably doubles its effectiveness. When I first began fly fishing for smallmouth, revolving-spinner flies were common. The spinner helps get the fly deep, gives it more action, and enhances low-frequency sound appeal. Today spinners are unpopular with most fly fishers, but there are times at night or when the water is stained that they are worth the extra trouble and weight. Hildebrandt still makes excellent straight-shafted spinners for straight, ring-eyed flies. Gold, black, and silver blades, in that order, are the best producers.
Smallmouth also key in on crayfish and small fish that live on or under bottom structure like sculpin, darters, suckers, and small catfish. In fact, most smallmouth fishers would probably vote crayfish as the number one smallmouth food, and I’d agree because my NearNuff Crayfish has enticed many nice smallmouth over the years and is my go-to fly. [See Stephen May’s “Lobster Dinners for Freshwater Fish,” March, 2006. The Editor] When tied in the correct color and size, this fast-sinking pattern also imitates streambottom fishes.
Swimming and bottom streamers have the best action in the water if they are made from marabou, soft hackles, rabbit strips, fox or Icelandic sheep hair, and silicone rubber legs. For flash I prefer Flashabou and Flashabou Accent. Each of these materials breathes and wiggles with life at the slightest movement.